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Digesting Peter Singer

Australian Peter Singer is the the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is also arguably the most controversial philosopher alive today. His critics label him “the most dangerous man in the world”. Using an adjective like “dangerous” to describe a philosopher might seem vastly overblown or at least oxymoronic. A philosopher – dangerous? But Singer upsets many people. He has written extensively and persuasively on such hot button topics as abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, environmentalism, wealth inequity and animal rights. And, for people of faith, he also writes from the uncomfortable perspective of atheism, Darwinism and utilitarianism.

The book Writings on an Ethical Life is a 329 page compilation of Singer’s work on these and other topics, as selected by Singer himself. Consequently it provides a compact but representative digest of his views. Much of the negativity toward Singer comes from people who likely have read little, if any of his work. When snipped quotes and sound bites are used as ammunition by ideologues then rational consideration of the issues becomes smothered. Still, Singer’s perspective would appear to be antithetical to Christian values. Is he just too much for a believer to ‘digest’? What might be gained from reading a book such as this? I would reply – to paraphrase the apostle Paul – “much in every way”.

Singer’s interests are strictly concerned with developing a consistent, thorough and defensible ethical framework – not in bashing Theism. Being atheistic he comes at this task from what might be termed a bottom-up (inductive) approach. That is, he generalizes principles from nature, history, culture and personal experience. He then tries to apply both pragmatism and reason to shape conclusions. Theists do this also, but in addition there is a major (frequently overriding) top-down component derived from whatever revelatory source (e.g. the Bible) the believer considers authoritative. These two streams of potential knowledge inform and interact to produce the resulting ethical views. And where they do not easily resolve, there is dissonance (e.g. in the faith/science arena).

As an atheist Singer has no such dissonance. So what is the result? Is he a shifting-sand relativist? Surprisingly perhaps, the answer is no. His bedrock turns out to be what Christians call the Golden Rule, but Singer would argue this is not a principle that descends from on high. It is inferable from experience. However, what then gets especially interesting is what he derives from this platform.

First, he frequently pushes the ethical implications of a position – even one a Christian would likely agree with – far further than the average person-in-the-pew would do. This can be uncomfortable. Christians often perceive their ethics to be higher & deeper because they are grounded in Divine commands.

Second, his utilitarianism challenges the absolute nature of some revelation-driven positions held by conservative Christians. For example, he would deny the absolute sanctity of human life. His controversial views on abortion, infanticide and euthanasia stem from such qualifications. And his detractors jump on this. But when you fully read his views a very different picture emerges. It is the facile interpretations of presumably scripturally-based ethical positions that are challenged. Familiar Christian subcultural views come under intense logical scrutiny and sometimes they don’t fare too well.

Thus confronted, Christians may need to rethink their rationale. And the result of that work can only be beneficial. Thoughtful challenges are good. What is not good is the near-universal tendency to select for consumption only views aligned with our preconceptions. This is laziness. And Singer is just the remedy for laziness. He is careful in his thinking and writes clearly and persuasively. If you resist – as perhaps you should – then serious mental effort is required to adequately undergird your resistance.

To illustrate the range of Singer’s writing would exceed the scope of this article. But let me briefly consider two examples that can provide some drill-down perspective into his thought.

Animal Rights

Adventists have inherited a legacy of vegetarianism from Ellen White. The top-down perspective derives from her prophetic voice. The bottom-up component is that a vegetarian lifestyle is presumably healthier. Now Singer is also a vegetarian. But his rationale is not health, particularly. Instead it is to minimalize needless animal suffering. Some sections excerpted from his longer book Animal Liberation describe how factory farms raise animals for food and the appalling conditions under which they are forced to exist. The meat industry in Western society is typically far from the idyllic picture of family farm animals living in free-range contentment until that last day. For example:

Of all the forms of intensive farming now practiced, the veal industry ranks as the most morally repugnant. … the specialist veal producers take their calves straight from the auction ring to a confinement unit. Here, in a converted barn or specially built shed, they have rows of wooden stalls, each 1 foot 10 inches wide by 4 feet 6 inches long. It has a slatted wooden floor, raised above the concrete floor of the shed. The calves are tethered by a chain around their neck to prevent them from turning in their stalls when they are small. … The stall has no straw or other bedding, since the calves might eat it, spoiling the paleness of their flesh. They leave their stalls only to be taken out to slaughter. They are fed a totally liquid diet, based on nonfat milk powder with vitamins, minerals, and growth-promoting drugs added. Thus the calves live for the next sixteen weeks.

(pp. 59-60)

The narrow stalls and their slatted wooden floors are a serious source of discomfort to the calves. When the calves grow larger, they cannot even stand up and lie down without difficulty. … The crates are too narrow to permit the calf to turn around. This is another source of frustration. In addition, a stall too narrow to turn around in is also too narrow to groom comfortably in; and calves have an innate desire to twist their heads around and groom themselves with their tongues. … A slatted floor is like a cattle grid, which cattle always avoid, except that the slats are closer together. The spaces, however, must still be large enough to allow most of the manure to fall or be washed through, and this means that they are large enough to make the calves uncomfortable on them. … The young calves sorely miss their mothers. They also miss something to suck on. The urge to suck is strong in a baby calf, as it is in a baby human. These calves have no teat to suck on, nor do they have any substitute. … It is common to see calves frantically trying to suck some part of their stalls, although there is usually nothing suitable;

(pp. 61-62)

Talking of animal cruelty can conjure visions of some anarchistic PETA-type person breaking into a barn at night and liberating the calves. But Singer has no sympathy for such methods, preferring the Gandhian approach of non-violent but sustained moral pressure.

What interests me here – first for Adventists, then Christians in general – is how Singer pushes the ethical envelope. Adventists, it seems, generally have none of Singer’s concerns on their radar. While health reform is fine shouldn’t we also and especially be concerned about inhumane treatment? If a household pet is abused the SPCA would be all over it. But raising animals for food typically involves constant suffering by the ‘food’. Then, more generally, Singer has some pointed criticism of how the idea of ‘dominion’ is practiced in a culture heavily influenced by a Judeo-Christian mindset. When God in Genesis says “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth”, Singer wonders if this idea of dominion has simply been translated into exploitation – with handy permission from the deity. Good question. Shouldn’t Christians consider that the highest implication of dominion is to passionately care for all the earth and its creatures? While that does not mandate total vegetarianism neither should it sanction unnecessary, consistent cruelty.

Wealth Inequity

First-worlders are affluent and frequently unaware of how accidental this good fortune is. We typically have a set of concentric circles of responsibility in mind, with kin, community and country closest to the heart. But in our TV & internet-driven Global Village it is tougher to turn a blind-eye to the desperate needs existing farther from this geographical and emotional locus. Singer hammers home the ethical responsibilities the advantaged have toward the disadvantaged.

I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. … if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. … The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon … our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, first, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Second, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.” (p. 107)

America and Canada are mostly geographically insulated from the kind of poverty and suffering Singer alludes to. And Australia perhaps even more so. Europe, in contrast, faces proximity pressures more severe. Darfur, for example, is almost a near-neighbor. But from a U.S. perspective it might as well be on the moon. And for Americans I think the issue can be nicely illustrated by asking how many of us would vote to have the U.S.-Mexico border made completely open, with no immigration restrictions.

Singer’s book, then, is both intellectually stimulating and morally challenging. I admire and have been impacted by his message. As a Christian, however, I am chagrined at how frequently on-target he is in criticizing the moral outworking of the Judeo-Christian assumptions within Western society. I do not agree with many of his world-view axioms and some of his conclusions. But any time someone pursues the ‘how shall we then live’ question with as much rigor and concern as Singer has, we would do well to listen and learn.

Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.

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